SAO PAULO — It was not his best first touch. The ball was coming to Michael Bradley from a distance, at a high angle, so controlling it without a bounce was likely to be difficult. And it was.
If it had settled neatly under his right boot, the United States almost certainly would be celebrating advancement to the 2014 World Cup knockout stages at this very moment. When are you reading this? Three hours after the game? Maybe 12 hours? Yep, still celebrating. There would have been no rush to stop the joy.PHOTOS: Beautiful people in Brazil | Brazil protests | Soccer fanatics | Fan tattoos
Instead the ball bounded off his cleats, a few feet toward midfield. He had to chase it that short distance, but had a headstart on everybody else interested in fielding it and easily got there first. Had he controlled it, maybe even given it a good blast with his right foot toward one sideline or the other, that party indeed would be raging.
That is not what happened. You might know this as a result of the 2-2 United States draw with Portugal that was secured just seconds after that vital intersection between Bradley, the ball and Portugal forward Eder.
Bradley attempted to control the ball and make a forward move, but he was slightly off balance as he reached for it with his foot and Eder shoved him with his right arm, executing what amounted to a smash-and-grab that sent Portugal off on its game-tying mission.
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“Well, when you get scored on in the last second, it’s unfortunate," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “But I think it was an amazing game, amazing performance by our guys, nothing more you could ask for.”
That’s just it. There was something more. There was one more play. This is how sports work. This is how soccer works. In a one-goal game, there always is time until the referee says there is not. In this case, he indicated five minutes of stoppage time were warranted, which seemed a bit heavy, but that became the assignment. The U.S. needed to see out those five minutes and not allow anything drastic to occur.
When the U.S. attempted to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, the U-23 team was in stoppage time protecting a 3-2 lead over El Salvador in a game the Americans had to win. Winger Brek Shea had an opportunity to boot the ball deep into opposing territory and consume a chunk of the remaining seconds. He did not. He tried to play it, lost possession and started a sequence that ended with backup goalie Sean Johnson failing to control a long, hopeful shot and allowing it to enter the goal for a draw that kept the Americans home from London.
When the U.S. won its World Cup group in 2010 with a near-the-death goal from Landon Donovan that you may remember, Algeria was trapped deep in its own end and failed to recognize Donovan leaking out toward midfield to accept a forward heave from goalkeeper Tim Howard. When U.S. forward Clint Dempsey struck a rolling shot at Rais Mbouli, it could have been controlled, but Mbouli allowed it to bound backward in the box, from where Donovan booted it into the left side of the goal.
One more play.
"When you see goals, it’s always a sequence of mistakes that happen, and that’s unfortunate, but that’s why goals happen," Klinsmann said in his press conference. "In that moment, I think Michael Bradley got caught in the middle of three or four guys and lost the ball, unfortunately. Then the counter break comes and even if we had in this moment three center backs on the field, we were not able to get to that cross."
Bradley had offered a rather pedestrian effort in the opener and promised to redeem himself against Portugal. Bradley delivered on that promise, completing as many passes in the first half of the Portugal game as in the entire 90-plus minutes against Ghana. He ran like a demon, as he usually does, helping the U.S. to remain relatively even with Portugal in the possession battle. Bradley did not earn the nation’s scorn with this performance, or even his error, but we ought to know by now not to search for reasoned perspective on a sporting event through Twitter’s random assertions.
“He does so many things for the team. Whoever’s saying that he’s not playing that well, it certainly isn’t that way from us,” defender Matt Besler said. “There is so much that goes through him and he has a lot on his shoulders, but I know that he wouldn’t have it any other way.”
This still was not the Michael Bradley U.S. fans have come to rely upon, however, as a player whose every error seems inconceivable. Bradley did that? Could not be.
He had a chance at what should have been a tying goal in the 55th minute, after Fabian Johnson’s move down the end line left Portugal keeper Beto sprawling on the turf. Bradley had an open goal, perhaps enough time to settle Johnson’s pass and then poke it in either corner. Instead he tried to one-time it, and he put the ball directly at defender Ricardo Costa covering the center of the goal line.
And Bradley had his moment at the end. He was not the only victim on that move forward. Midfielder Kyle Beckerman got caught ball-watching as Bradley tried to control it, and when the move started toward the U.S. goal, he could not recover to the front. Klinsmann had slipped in an extra center back as a late sub, but that did nothing to make Cristiano Ronaldo’s cross more difficult. And defender Geoff Cameron, whose botched clearance had put the ball directly on Nani’s toe for Portugal’s easy opener, allowed Silvestre Varela to slip past him and power a header into the goal.
“We’re kind of sad, I think,” Johnson said. “If somebody had told us that we were going to have four points after two games, I think we would take it. But at this point we are a little bit disappointed.”
“Too long. Thirty seconds too long,” Howard said. “Football is cruel sometimes.”
One more play. It’s fair to ask for more, until the referee says no more is required.